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Mudville: June 23, 2024 11:29 am PDT

Never Knuckle Under

Simply labeling Wilbur Wood as a knuckleballer who played a half century ago provides little context to those who never saw the southpaw pitch.

Looking at his career, a 17-season, multi-chapter affair that saw him average a mere 9.6 wins per season, also distorts who he was and what he accomplished between 1967 and 1975. While his overall numbers don’t scream out Hall-of-Fame, Wood proved to be one of the game’s most durable and dominant pitchers before having his career cut short by a devastating injury he suffered in 1976.

The Massachusetts native began his career in 1960, playing for his hometown Red Sox. He struggled to find success in Boston, and later with Pittsburgh, before arriving in Chicago in 1967. His journey with the White Sox took him from the bullpen to the starting rotation and along the way he left his mark as one of the game’s true iron men, embracing the knuckleball to become a throwback to a time when pitchers weren’t limited by pitch counts, analytics or managerial whims.

Wood twice eclipsed the 350-inning mark [1972-73]. Consider that no pitcher has crossed the 300-inning threshold in the American League since Jim Palmer in 1977. Steve Carlton [304] last hit the mark in the National League [1980].

His 376 2/3 innings in 1972 remain a high-water mark since the end of World War II, just topping the 376 inning Detroit’s Mickey Lolich had thrown in 1971, despite the fact that a player’s strike limited the season to 154 games. No one in the American League had pitched more innings in a season since Philadelphia’s Ed Walsh went 393 innings in 1912. Grover Cleveland was the last National League pitcher to go that high, recording 388 innings in 1917.

Wood is one of six pitchers, and the only one to do it twice, to throw more than 1,000 innings in a three-year stretch during the live-ball era, according to The Elias Sports Bureau.

“It was like a cakewalk for them after guys saw me throwing crap up there for seven innings. Terry and Rich would come in and bang, the hitters would get surprised in a hurry.”

He leads that select group with 1,070 innings thrown from 1971-73. He also threw 1,056 innings from 1972-74. Red Faber [1,002 innings from 1920-22], Phil Niekro [1,006 from 1977-79], Gaylord Perry [1,009 from 1972-74], Mickey Lolich [1,012 from1972-74] and Robin Roberts [1,014 from 1952-54] also accomplished the feat.

“I had a lot of fun,” Wood, 79, said. “The worst thing about being a starting pitcher was the days you didn’t pitch. What did you do then? You went to the park and did your running or whatever but then you had to sit on your fanny and watch the game, knowing you weren’t going to participate.

“That’s why I can’t understand these guys these days that want to throw once a week, every six or seven days. It’s baffling. I don’t know what they do in between starts that’s so important. I guess those side sessions are more important than pitching in a game. That’s all I hear about. So and so had a great side session the other day. That’s wonderful but he didn’t have such a good game four days ago. But hey, his side session was good.”

Wood’s focus remained on being on the mound. Look no further than 1973 when he had the luck and misfortune to win and lose 20 games in one season, going 24-20. He appeared in 49 games [48 starts], had 21 complete games and just five no-decisions.

“It was fun to play behind him,” said Bill Melton, who was Chicago’s starting third baseman from 1969-75. “He threw a lot of strikes and with that knuckleball, there were a lot of screaming meanies down the line. He would throw that knuckleball and Jim Kaat would throw his changeup at 60 miles per hour and we played on astro turf. They threw a lot of strikes but we had to make a lot of plays.”

BALTIMORE, MD - CIRCA 1974: Pitcher Wilbur Wood #28 of the Chicago White Sox shows the grip of one of his pitches before a Major League Baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles circa 1974 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Wood played for the White Sox from 1967-78. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)


While playing behind Wood was never dull for Melton and his teammates the hurler wasn’t always the dominant pitcher that he later became. He struggled early and was nearly out of chances for a sustained big-league career when he arrived in Chicago.

There is also a popular misconception that legendary knuckleballer and Hall-of-Famer Hoyt Wilhelm taught him the pitch upon his arrival in Chicago. Wood learned the pitch from his father as a child and was throwing it for years before he pitched alongside Wilhelm, who merely helped him refine his approach.

“I was throwing the knuckleball as a kid,” Wood said. “It was not something that I picked up when I got together with Hoyt. I was throwing it all along. I just happened to sign as a fastball/curveball pitcher. I originally learned it from my dad. My dad had a real good palm ball and his palm ball had no rotation on it at all. I couldn’t throw a palm ball because my hand was small because I was a kid so I ended up throwing the knuckleball.

“I was throwing it and of course it took a long time because I was just fooling around with it. I was just trying to throw a pitch that didn’t have any rotation like my father’s palm ball. That’s where that started from. I threw it before high school but I didn’t throw it that often in high school. This wasn’t something that was brand new. I had it when I came in [in 1960] but I was a fastball/curveball guy. I didn’t sign as a knuckleballer.”

The fastball/curveball approach wasn’t working for Wood, though, when he signed with Boston in 1960 out of Belmont High School. He appeared in 72 games [66 starts] at the Class A, B and D levels during 1960-61 and was a rather pedestrian 30-28 with a 3.38 ERA.  He did go 20-10 in 36 games [26 starts] with a 2.03 ERA over two stints at Seattle of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1963-64 but each time he was called up to Boston he was mediocre, going 0-5 with a 4.85 ERA in 36 games. It led to the Red Sox selling him to Pittsburgh in September of 1964.

The Pirates immediately added him to the Major League roster and he appeared in three non-descript games that month. He spent all of 1965 with Pittsburgh, pitching mostly out of the pen, going 1-1 with a 3.16 ERA in 34 games. Wood found himself back in the minors for all of 1966, though, going 14-8 with a 2.41 ERA in 31 starts for Columbus of the Triple-A International League.

While Pittsburgh brass was unimpressed the Chicago White Sox saw something they liked in Wood and traded for him that October for a player-to-be-named later, who turned out to be Juan Pizarro. While Wood may have found success anywhere else he was fortunate to land with the Sox and the legendary knuckleballer Wilhelm, who helped put the young hurler on a remarkable decade-long journey in Chicago.

“I need to make a change,” Wood said. “I had been up and down with the Red Sox and Pirates and didn’t have too much success. Now I was with the White Sox and it was either make or break for me. I had to do something and that’s when I decided to do it [switch to the knuckler full-time] and it worked out well. Hoyt told me that if you’re going to be a knuckleballer then you better throw it. He said you had to be throwing 80 or 90 percent of the time or more.’

CHICAGO - 1972: Pitcher Wilbur Wood #28 of the Chicago White Sox throws a pitch during a game in 1972 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. Wilbur Wood7201 (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)


The White Sox immediately deposited Wood in the bullpen and the results were impressive. He went 4-2 in 51 games in 1967, the first in which he relied solely on the knuckleball. Wood posed a 2.45 ERA in 91 1/3 innings, establishing himself as a bona fide major league reliever.

Wood had forged a place for himself in what was a strong Chicago bullpen, one that included Wilhelm and fellow knuckleballers Eddie Fisher and Bob Locker. Fisher, Locker and Wood combined to lead the American League in appearances every season between 1965 and 1970. Fisher topped the circuit in ’65 and ’66 with 82 and 67 appearances, respectively, while locker led the A.L. in 1967 with 77 appearances. Wood followed by leading the league every season between 1968 and 1970, appearing in 88, 76 and 77 games, respectively.  Throw in the fact that Wilhelm averaged 60 appearances a season between 1963 and 1968 for the Sox and you had a knuckleball dominant bullpen.

“Hoyt and I talked about the knuckleball but he didn’t refine my knuckleball,” Wood said. “He threw it from the right side, I threw it from the left side and we basically gripped it the exact same way. It was just a matter of us talking about it. It was just the one conversation we had about doing it 90 percent of the time. That was the end of the conversation other than hey you had a good one today or hey you had a bad one today.

“I didn’t sneak in a fastball or a curveball, either. I wasn’t sneaking anything in there because I knew the hitter was taking if it was 3-0 or if it were the first pitch. I’d throw a fastball right down the middle of the plate because I had confidence to throw it for a strike when I knew they were taking. And if they weren’t taking, I was in a heap of trouble. You could see them gripping that bat so tight, though, and see the saw dust coming out.”

Wood’s true emergence came in 1968, the year of the pitcher. While it would be easy to pin his success on the height of the mound, it didn’t seem as if adding or taking away a few inches of dirt would have mattered to him. He went 13-12 and led the league in appearances [88 games, two starts] and games finished [46] while throwing what was, up until that point, a career-high 159 innings. He also posted a career-best 1.87 ERA. He combined with Wilhelm to make 160 appearances.

He appeared in 153 games over the next two seasons, all in relief, going 19-24 over that stretch. He was also credited with 52 saves over that three-season stretch.

“I was fortunate to be in the right spot at the right time and it worked out well,” Wood said. “Hoyt got hurt one year, Bob Locker got hurt one year. Injuries happened and I happened to be there and I happened to do a pretty good job. I continued and ended up with 80 something games.

“Did I ever need a break? Who knows? I don’t know. As long as you’re feeling well, you continue going. You ask a question like that, it’s like asking ‘How far can you run before you need to stop and take a rest?’ Some people can go farther than others. Pitchers are the same way.”

Wood, however, would be asked to make a change prior to the 1971 season, though, and that change would take him to the final act of his career.

Chicago White Sox (L-R) Wilbur Wood (28), pitching coach Johnny Sain (33), and Eddie Fisher (34) pose while demonstrating knuckleball grips on field at Comiskey Park. Chicago, IL 5/6/1973 -- 5/9/1973 CREDIT: John Iacono (Photo by John Iacono /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images) (Set Number: X17688 TK2 R2 F20 )


The White Sox continually to struggle overall as the 60s drew to a close despite such an effective bullpen. So, it wasn’t surprising that in 1970, Chicago went through three managers, the last of which was Chuck Tanner, who began a distinguished 19-year managerial career by piloting the Sox over the final 16 games of the 1970 season.

Tanner returned for his first full season in ’71 and, along with newly hired pitching coach Johnny Sain, opted to move Wood into the starting rotation. Sain had done wonders in every one of his previous stops with the Yankees, Twins and Tigers before wearing out his welcome. He and Tanner had some definite ideas about that to do with the rotation and Wood despite the fact that White Sox general manager Roland Hemond had attempted to trade the knuckleballer to the Angels that winter.

“It was a combination of Chuck and John that moved me to the rotation,” Wood said. “I had a lot of success coming out of the pen and then things changed. Managers changed. They made their changes and if I was going to hang around it was going to be in the starting rotation and not the pen. I enjoyed both, but I really didn’t have a choice which way I was going to go.

“I was not going to be used out of the pen anymore in the capacity that I had been. Let’s give it a shot and see what I do and if not they’ll just get rid of me. They tried to trade me but that trade [to the Angels] was negated. Some of the best trades are the ones you don’t make.”

Wood [22-13] embraced his role as a starter, becoming the first White Sox pitcher to win 20 games since Gary Peters [20] in 1964. His 1.91 ERA was a career-best as a starter while setting a career-high with 22 complete games. Wood also had seven shutouts and finished second in innings pitched [334] while striking out a career-high 210. He also finished third in the Cy Young voting behind Oakland’s Vida Blue and Detroit’s Mickey Lolich as Chicago finished in third place in the American League West.

“I had an opportunity to win a few games and then bang! It just took off a bit,” Wood said. “I got the opportunity to start. I took it and I enjoyed it. Then I had guys like [Goose] Gossage [Terry] Forster come in and relieve me. It was like a cakewalk for them after guys saw me throwing crap up there for seven innings. Terry and Rich would come in and bang, the hitters would get surprised in a hurry.”

The White Sox acquired Dick Allen in December of 1971 and his bat, along with Tanner’s guidance and Wood’s rubber arm, helped Chicago jump right into the thick of the AL West.  Allen would win the AL MVP Award while Wood finished second to Cleveland’s Gaylord Perry in the Cy Young race.

It was a season of accomplishment for Wood. He led the American League with a career-high 24 victories and 49 starts, which tied him with Ed Walsh [1908] for most starts in club history.

Wood would lead the league in victories again in 1973, going 24-20 in 48 starts, making him the first pitcher since Walter Johnson [1916] to win and lose 20 in the same season. Fellow knuckleballer Phil Niekro also accomplished the feat in 1979. The 20 losses also put him in a unique club. Only seven pitchers, including Wood, have followed a 20-win season with a 20 loss season in the last 60 years – Larry Jackson, Cubs [1964-65], Mel Stottlemyre, Yankees [1965-66], Luis Tiant, Indians [1968-69], Stan Bahnsen, White Sox [1972-73], Steve Carlton, Phillies [1972-73] and Jerry Koosman, Mets [1976-77]. Wood would make a second appearance in that club after losing 20 games in 1975.

“One year I was 24-20 and if you add that up that’s 44 decisions,” Wood said. “I had 48 starts that year. I didn’t get off the hook a whole lot. I only got off the hook four times that year.”

Wood also has the distinction of being the last pitcher to start both ends of a doubleheader. He did so at Yankee Stadium on July 20, 1973 though the accomplishment is a bit misleading. Wood faced only six batters in the opener and each of them scored. Tanner pulled him and the Wood volunteered to start the second game, in which he pitched into the fifth inning. He lost both games.

He completed his quartet of 20-win seasons by going 20-19 in 1974. He was also tops in the American League with 90 victories over that stretch. The White Sox also never broke through despite Wood’s success and durability combined with the hitting of Allen and Melton. Injuries seemed to always to get in the way, as did the Oakland A’s.

“We had some good ball clubs, especially when Dick Allen came over,” Wood said. “We were right in the thick of it for quite a while. It’s a shame that Dick Allen never got into the Hall of Fame. He should have been in there a long time ago. He was something else. He could do it all. He could run, he could hit. What couldn’t he do?”

Wood, who went 16-20 in 1975, was only 33 years old and with the life expectancy of a knuckleballer – most pitch into their 40s – the expectation was that Wood would last another decade in Chicago. It didn’t happen, though.

While Wood began 1976 in familiar fashion – he won four of his first seven starts – it was that final start on May 9 that would change his life and end ultimately end his career. Detroit’s Ron LeFlore, a right-handed hitter, hit a two-out line drive back through the box in the sixth inning that hit Wood squarely on the leg, shattering his left kneecap.

“He hit the ball inside out and I never saw it,” Wood said. “If the ball is thrown on the inside part of the plate, you figure the hitter is going to pull the ball. If the ball is on the outside of the plate, he’s going to go the other way. This particular pitch was on the inside part of the plate and he hit it inside out and I never saw it. I’m not saying that if I saw it I was going to catch it but I would have gotten the hell out of the way. It was bang-bang and that was it.

“I came back after that but I wasn’t the same. You’re damn right I was gun shy. You know, the worst thing I ever saw was when Dick Allen hit one back up the middle and he spun Mickey Lolich’s hat off his head one Sunday in Chicago. That was scary. Dick felt bad about it and never wanted to go back through the middle when he was hitting. He was afraid of hitting the pitcher. That was the scariest thing I ever saw.”

Wood said that facing Frank Howard scared him the most for the same reason.

“He was so big and all you saw was bat and arms and he could hit the ball inside out,” Wood said. “That’s what scared you.”

The White Sox left Wood unprotected in the 1976 expansion draft but neither Toronto nor Seattle selected him because of his health. They were correct in their assessment because Wood went 17-18 in 1977-78, closing out what might have been a Hall-of-Fame career if not for the injury. He retired in 1978 with 164 victories.

“I did something that I wanted to do and I enjoyed doing it,” Wood said. “I was fortunate to be able to do it. I gave it the best I could and everything I had and we had a lot of fun doing it.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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